USA: Fair Grounds girl power fuels Sophie Doyle on Saudi Cup adventure

Horse Racing Sophie Doyle jockey
Female jockeys at Fair Grounds 2020 (left to right): Erica Murray, Sophie Doyle, Aubrie Green, Chantal Sutherland. Photo: Hodges Photography/Fair Grounds

By Joe Kristufek/Fair Grounds

USA: It’s been a mix of successes, obstacles and setbacks, but one thing is certain: the 2019-2020 racing season has been one of enlightenment for the women of the jocks’ room at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

They each have unique backgrounds and are at different stages of their careers, but when it comes to the spirited competition they live every day, Sophie Doyle, Chantal Sutherland, Erica Murray and Aubrie Green (who is currently injured) are each other’s greatest supporters.

“I feel like sometimes women can get a little bit catty and I think it is better off to be happy and positive,” says Doyle. “Coming into this meet, I was determined to transform the (female) jocks’ room into a place full of warmth and good, positive energy.”

According to Doyle, their home away from home was painted and decorated. The pink lights cool the energy and meditation music relaxes the environment. When they’re not riding, the female jockeys often do yoga, exercise, and work on their fitness.

“It’s homey and comfortable and I think the atmosphere and the mindset has helped all of us go out there and ride really well,” Doyle adds. “We are having a great time in the room and rooting for each other to do well. If you’re having a bad day, we pick each other up. We turn the page and go back out there with a clear head and the right frame of mind.”

‘It’s so nice to ride with women who support each other’

Winless from just two mounts here last season, Erica Murray is Fair Grounds’ leading lady with 15 victories this season and she’s in the midst of the best run of her six-year career.

“It is so awesome,” Murray says. “It is so nice to ride with women who support each other. I grew up idolising Sophie and Chantal, so being able to ride with them is amazing. I know Aubrie isn’t riding here right now, but we still support each other in every way. It has been such a tight knit room. We all give advice and root for each other. It is very uplifting.”

Horse Racing Sophie Doyle jockey
Sophie Doyle and Erica Murray at Fair Grounds. Photo: Hodges Photography/Fair Grounds

With 1,007 career wins, 22 graded-stakes scores, and a trio of G1 triumphs aboard Game On Dude, Sutherland is the most garlanded of the Fair Grounds female riders, although most of those successes came earlier in her career in her native Toronto and in Southern California.

Sutherland has been a TV star and featured in magazines, but since moving her tack to Fair Grounds and Kentucky, Sutherland is pressing the reset button, to an extent.

Horse Racing Chantal Sutherland jockey
Chantal Sutherland: pressing the reset button. Photo: Hodges Photography/Fair Grounds

A crafty ride aboard She’sonthewarpath put her into the winner’s circle following the Albert M. Stall Memorial Stakes less than two weeks ago, and she is enjoying this stage of the career journey with Sophie, Erica and Aubrie.

“I’m really happy how we have all bonded and supported each other,” Sutherland says. “I think Fair Grounds has done a great job repainting the room, giving us really nice TVs and great sofas. It is just a really nice place to live in. We are here so often, so we are all really grateful for that. We are just like sisters!”

Former British-based Doyle is the daughter of former trainer Jacqui Doyle and brother to Godolphin rider James. Since crossing the pond she has won 289 races including a high-profile trip of Graded events last year with Street Band culminating in her first G1 success in the Cotillion at Parx.

Now she embarks on another adventure, as she travels to Saudi Arabia to compete against 13 of the best riders in the world, both male and female, in Friday’s International Jockey Challenge.

‘Ten years ago we couldn’t go and race there’

“Ten years ago, we couldn’t go and race there,” Doyle says of Saudi Arabia. “I’m curious to see just how different it is now.”

Times are changing. In 2017, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi state schools announced physical education classes for both boys and girls and began allowing men and women to attend sporting events. The following year, a royal decree granted women the right to drive vehicles.

Horse Racing Sophie Doyle jockey
Sophie Doyle, pictured in action at Santa Anita. Photo: courtesy of Saudi Cup

“Even though they are allowed to drive now, they still have to have a man present in the car with them,” Doyle says. “I went to Amman one year to get my visa and the woman told me they weren’t allowed to drive cars and that they had never seen it.

“We took the car off road and I drove them all around this back village. They all had faces of disbelief. Driving a car is just one of many freedoms we take for granted.

“I think the Jockey Challenge will continue to help make a difference in the way women are viewed and treated,” Doyle continues. 

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“I think it’s great that they are trying to showcase women competing against men. It’s a display of respect for women, and it shows a belief that we do know what we are doing out there.

“It will be so refreshing for the women of Saudi Arabia to be able to come to the races and experience us competing against the men. They probably haven’t seen anything like it, and we want them to feel a sense of pride right along with us.”

‘They probably haven’t seen anything like it’

Fourteen riders will compete in four races, with the winner taking home $30,000. Doyle will be up against some top riders from all over the world, including Mike Smith, Frankie Dettori, Yutaka Take, Olivier Peslier and Emma-Jayne Wilson.

“I am really excited for Sophie,” says Doyle’s colleague Aubrie Green, sidelined after surgery to ankle ligament damage sustained in early January when one of her mounts flipped in the gate.

“It’s an opportunity that I think we all would love,” adds the rider. “We are all so proud of her, it makes me want to cry.”

Horse Racing Chantal Sutherland Sophie Doyle jockey
Aubrie Green (second left) is rooting for Sophie Doyle (right) in Saudi Arabia.
Photo: Hodges Photography/Fair Grounds

“I think it is so amazing,” Murray adds. “She is such a good representative for the Fair Grounds jockey colony and women riders.”

“It is super exciting,” says Sutherland. “I am so happy for her. I think it is a great opportunity – I hope she does really well. She is a wonderful person to represent the United States.”

Doyle is very much looking very forward to the competition, but also to having her voice heard. “You always want to try to support other women and try to help them, not just in your own country, but around the world,” Doyle said.

‘We face an uphill battle around the world’

You can follow the journey and successes of the female riders at the Fair Grounds on Twitter via their personal accounts @sophiedoyle77, @jockeychantal, @EricaAmazing and @jockeygreen and the hashtag #fgbellariders.

“Hopefully maybe other female jockeys around America will follow our example and create a ‘bella’ hashtag unique to their racetrack,” Doyle says. “Horse racing is the only sport where women compete directly against men. 

“We face an uphill battle in the States and even more so around the world. By showing the support we have for each other in the Fair Grounds ladies jocks’ room, I hope we set a good example for others and can continue to raise awareness.”

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